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Burning Man: Desert Weirdness Incubates a New Era of Art & Technology
by Louis M. Brill,
Guest Editor
The Burning Man Festival is an annual performing arts festival and has come to be acknowledged as the largest outdoor event of its kind in North America. It began in 1986 with the premise of building a sculpture of a human figure and burning it. Although the burning of a wooden effigy is a tradition that is thousands of years old, its modern evocation radiates a certain mystique and has come to be a metaphor of new beginnings and of change. The flaming sculpture has come to represent a letting go of emotional baggage in creating a 'clean sweep' from past and unwanted episodes of one's life. In the decade and a half of presenting the Burning Man Festival, it has grown in attendance to 26,000 (as of 2000) visitors and is international in scope with attendees from just about every state in America and from at least 17 other countries.

To understand the impact of attending the Burning Man Festival is to understand its juxtaposition to its location and the resulting activities it creates as a social and artistic event. The Festival is held in Black Rock, Nevada which is considered the second flattest piece of land in the United States (first is the Salt Lake Flats in Utah). The Black Rock desert is an ancient lakebed estimated at 400 square miles in area and composed of a desolate, flat, desiccated land upon which there is nothing. No hills, no scrub, no trees, no animals. Nothing.

It is a harsh land whose daytime temperatures have been known to top off at 117 degrees and during the evening drop as low as 40 degrees. The weather is very unforgiving with sudden windstorms that gust from 40 to 50 miles an hour and have been known to lift a fully erect tent and launch it as a kite. There are also blinding dust storms and occasional visits by swirling winds known as Dust Devils. Despite the intense and hostile nature of the Black Rock desert, people continue to attend the Burning Man Festival and in each succeeding Festival, its total attendance increases.

It is against this backdrop that LEONARDO journal explores the various kinds of art that have sprung from the Burning Man Festival. It has become an incubator in giving its artists an opportunity to create art in relation to or as a result of the Festival and its subsequent desert encampment. Over the years Festival artists have come to create a body of artwork that has awarded the Burning Man Festival status of becoming the largest outdoor art performance festival in North America.

In the year 2000, over 150 artworks were registered for installation on the Festival grounds. Of interest here are the many forms of creativity used to create expressive artworks including fire (but, of course!), sculpture, painting, and electronic art installations and performance art. Artistic endeavors were presented in high-tech and low-tech forms. There were also many art works created in interactive forms involving some degree of participation by the viewers to complete its art 'effect.' Much of the art work was site-specific to the desert and its surrounding environs. As interesting, much of the art is temporary, as it is burned at the end of the Festival. Only the memories of its former presence give it permanence as a substantial art statement.

In the greater scope of the Burning Man Festival it has become an art incubator encouraging an exploration of creative expression against unique physical constraints and challenges of using a 20,000-year-old prehistoric lakebed as a blank canvas of artistic expression. To this end, we introduce some of the artists and their work as candidates to become part of the intended LEONARDO JOURNAL Burning Man Festival issue.

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